20th Century Literary Problem:
The Johnny Winters Interview

On his previous solo effort, Mailbox, 'nikcuS member Rusty Spell was rather hesitant about doing an interview; however, with 100,000 Fireflies release of 20th Century Literary Problem, released just a few days ago (6 Oct 1996, today being the 11th), Rusty actually called me up and asked me when I was coming.

So, I came as soon as possible. I drove to his apartment at Hattiesburg, Mississippi where he shut off his viewing of the Beatles Anthology videos long enough to talk to me. He seemed excited about talking about the album, and we began.

JW: So, what started this one? Got any stories about what made you want to undertake this project?

RS: Well, I had toyed with the idea of making music exclusively for a female singer for a while, but nothing ever came up... mainly because I couldn't find a singer who would work out. But the thing that made me really want to do something like this was the first time I heard The Magnetic Fields. That was about a year ago.

JW: You bought their first two albums, Distant Plastic Trees and The Wayward Bus at in Memphis, Tennessee at Planet Music some time around October 1995.

RS: Gosh, how do you know these things?

JW: It's just research I gotta do.

RS: Cool. Anyway, yeah, I heard the albums and it was just this one guy, Stephin Merritt, playing this excruciatingly beautiful music on little keyboards and things. And the only other person was this flutey-sounding girl, Susan Anway, singing. I thought maybe I could do something like that, or hoped I could. Not as good as Stephin, though. I'd never heard music like that before.

JW: So, what happened next?

RS: Well, I listened to the albums like the devil and tried to find someone who actually liked them. I couldn't. An email pal of mine, Amanda Speilman, introduced me to them and she's the only Merritt companion I had. It was lonely.

JW: So you didn't think anyone would like you doing the same thing and put the project off, right?

RS: No, I just bought the other three Magnetic Fields albums and listened the mess out of them. I was used to people not sharing my taste in music.

JW: So when did this, your album, get started?

RS: It was last July. Noby and I had the drumkit out for some reason, and Lori Berkemeyer came over and I was talking about how I'd always wanted to just write keyboard music and have some girl sing it. Lori said that she wanted to do something like that, that it would be fun. Lori hadn't occurred to me as a singer yet because she never would even sing in front of me in the car or anything. She was embarrassed. It came as a shock that she wanted to sing. I almost made some music there on the spot, but she had to leave.

JW: Now, let's get these names straight. Noby is, of course, Noby Nobriga, of 'nikcuS, who was chief engineer on Mailbox, and Lori is Lori Berkemeyer, your friend of almost eight years, the subject of "Berky."

RS: You got it. Anyway, since Lori actually wanted to sing, I started thinking seriously about pulling a Magnetic Fields sort of thing. I had studied Merritt's music long enough, and thought I could handle it. The original conception was to do primarily Merritt covers with one or two of my own, and have Lori sing all the songs.

JW: Which is not what it is now. Seems to have pulled more toward you. Even the few Merritt covers are more of your stuff than his, and Lori and you split the vocal duties right down the middle.

RS: Yeah, some of it--the vocals I mean--was necessity, but some of it was just that it was right for one to sing one and another to sing another. But, no, I didn't plan on singing as much as I did. I thought I might pop up once or twice.

JW: So you've got a singer. You've got an idea. You need a band name.

RS: 100,000 Fireflies was pretty obvious. Use the first Merritt single. I thought about some stupid puns like The Merritteers or The Merritt Badges or The Stephin and Susan Band or things like that, but I only entertained them for seconds at a time.

JW: And the album title? When did it come about?

RS: Soon after I wrote the second song, I think. I know that by the time we recorded the first vocals, I knew it would be called 20th Century Literary Problem.

JW: And why this title?

RS: Well, I hadn't written all the lyrics yet, but I knew the album was going to be about what we consider problems. "We" meaning at least slightly artistic or aesthetically-minded boys and girls who don't realize that people are starving in the world. Sort of how these boys and girls try their best to be kind to each other or just go out or love one another, and how the problems of our world keep preventing this. I'm not sure what people out of this specific realm will think about the album. My music gets more and more specific; that's probably bad.

JW: You're not country music.

RS: [Rusty laughs.] See, that's it. Country music has been stagnant for a few decades now, not going forward in the least. But people love it because they know what to expect and because they hear some broad concept and go, "That's me!" I guess that's why it sells.

JW: You mention country music in the first song, "I Used Up All Your Icons."

RS: Is this the segue into our talking about the individual songs?

JW: You know my business too well.

RS: Darn rock-n-roll journalists. [He notes the look of anger on my face.] Just kidding, Johnny. You're better than all them.

JW: Thanks. Okay, so let's talk about the songs. The first is "I Used Up All Your Icons." Tell me about this one.

RS: This was the second lyric I wrote and the first song to be recorded, music and vocals. It was sort of the one we did all at once to prove a full song could be done. And as long as we were doing that, I knew I wanted to do one that would set the mood for the album, namely the first song. You wanna know how I wrote the lyrics?

JW: Please...

RS: No, that's another song. [He laughs at his own joke.] Okay, I pulled out all the Stephin Merritt lyrics and made this big list of the most commonly-used words. If you know much about Stephin, he uses the same words over and over. He takes these sort of trite words and makes them even more cliche by using them again and again and again. But this is what works for him. He says he likes to peel the skin of a cliche till it doesn't mean anything, or until you realize why they're cliches in the first place, or something like that. I'm not sure of the actual quote.

JW: I am, I have it here, but it's not important.

RS: Okay, then, anyway, yeah, I just made this list and strung them all together. I wanted to make sure I was getting at the heart of Merritt, so I used all his words, actually "used up all his icons" right there in the first song. See? Other than that, the lyrics really don't make much sense to me. And I wrote the bridge, the Nikon line, as a sort of joke about Paul McCartney's song "She Loved Her Biker Like an Icon." Ha ha, huh?

JW: Anything else about this song especially historic?

RS: Only that when I showed up at Noby's House Studios to record it with Lori, I saw her sitting there in front of the mic waiting on me and I just wanted to squeeze her and love her to death like the Looney Toons abominable snowman. I was so happy to have her recording with me. It seemed only right, she and I doing a project together like this after being friends for so many years. Tommy Burton arrived at the studio that night, and it was sort of his suggestion that Lori and I sing together instead of just her. I sort of sung in the background so I would just be hinted at. I think it worked the way we did it.

JW: The next song is "I Keep Falling In Love."

RS: A late song, the next to last one I did. I had eight songs prepared and told Lori I'd let her write two song lyrics if she wanted to. She didn't get to number nine in time, so I wrote this. She did write the tenth, however.

JW: You want to talk about the lyrics. You wrote to Tommy Burton not too long ago that this should be subtitled "A True Story."

RS: Great, you're reading my letters now?

JW: No, I just have my sources. Go on.

RS: [Rusty sighs, but he's kidding. He's still happy.] Yeah, like I had just finished reading Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filipovic, the refugee from Sarajevo. I was convinced that I was in love with her. I tried to write her, and I still may. I realized how easy it is for me to, well, fall in love. Sure, I know it's really not love, but it has some of the same weird sensations, so it's close enough for a song. Most songs are lies anyway. So, by song logic, "A True Story" is the truth even though it's a lie.

JW: What do you mean by the Gulf of Mexico line?

RS: Well, being on the internet, you talk to people from all across the world. I have lots of Canadian friends, for example, who really want me to come visit. But I tell them, "Look, not only am I in America, I'm deep in America, practically swimming in the Gulf of Mexico." And so in the song I actually am.

JW: I'm figuring you out, Rusty. I can tell that the last verse is about two specific people. Who are they?

RS: None of your business. Well, none of the people's business who might read this interview. I'll tell you later if you promise to keep it off the record.

JW: Sure.

RS: About the music for this song, though, I had made a tape for Lori of the eight songs I had to that point, and I kinda sung along with them live, directly onto a tape. At the end of the tape, there was room so I started playing this little music box melody on the keyboard. I think I used some of it for this song. That tape still exists. I'm going to listen to it real quick when we're done here... and then I'll get back to The Beatles. It's getting late.

JW: And we're just on the third song. "You Need to Awaken."

RS: Yeah, when I first had the idea to do this album, I really wanted to cover The Magnetic Fields' song "Candy." But by this time, I wanted to do less true covers, so I wrote completely new lyrics and arranged the music for it. These are the most revised lyrics I've ever written. Usually, I'll write the lines and change maybe a few words. I think every word here was changed eventually. But it's some of my favorite lyrics.

JW: Even though they don't make a lot of sense perhaps. What does this song really mean?

RS: Well, in the liner notes, when I give thanks to Steven Barthelme for "inadvertently supplying ideas for this album," it kind of refers to this song. I had written a story called "Arthur Is Waking" for his fiction writing class and he wrote some comments about the first draft. I sort of fused his comments with the story itself and connected these things with the idea that a girl was talking to a boy about how he might best do things from now on... or whatever. I don't know. I just think the words sound nice together.

JW: Oh, me too. And I get it even if it doesn't make sense. Maybe in a different way that you, though.

RS: Glory of poetry, eh? Next song?

JW: Yeah... "Swinging London (Never Go Back)." Of the few people that have heard this album, they are saying this is probably their favorite.

RS: I give credit to Stephin Merritt. He wrote the song "Swinging London."

JW: But you wrote almost all new lyrics and changed the music considerably. Some say they like your version even better.

RS: Oh, I don't know about that. What I did was take his chorus and change the last two lines every time. Then I lengthened the verses two more lines and wrote them completely. I only used his first two lines. The funky rock organ in the music makes all the difference, really.

JW: "Is That the Same Moon?" You just had to have a song with "moon" in the title, didn't you?

RS: It's a Merritt standard. This song was a weird fusing of some of the music from TMF's "When You Were My Baby" and the sappy-happy ideas of "You and Me and the Moon." I needed a good dose of sap in here somewhere. This was it. I love it.

JW: If "Moon" is the song to make you happy, then I suppose the next song, "Please," is the one that makes you want to kill yourself.

RS: I got in this odd state of mind when I wrote the lyrics to "Please." Yes, I wanted a sad song, and something also to offset "Moon." That's why I put them back-to-back. I had this vision of myself as a young woman who could actually feel herself aging, her life slipping away. And I gave her this problem which probably deserves the most sympathy. I really got involved and wrote a lot of lyrics. I discarded one verse for reasons of time before we actually recorded it. I was actually making myself sad the night I wrote it. I figured out the music that night, too, on my Casio MT- 100. Really sad music.

JW: It translated pretty well from the Casio, I think.

RS: I hope so. The first line, the one about the "Cartesian plane," was something I had written in 1993 in a letter to Lori. We were both reading A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken and he was talking about how he and his wife discussed where their relationship should be at certain points in the future. I told Lori you could plot their lovelife on the Cartesian plane. I saw this same letter a few days before I wrote the lyrics and decided to stick it in. Groovy, huh?

JW: Sometimes it seems your songs stem from the first line. I think this was true for "All Alone" as well.

RS: Yeah, well, only because I wrote it before all the rest. I mean... [He pauses.] Are you just that desperate for a segue?

JW: You suck, Rusty.

RS: "All Alone" was the first song I wrote the lyrics for. I came up with the music the day after we recorded the vocals for "Icons." I went to Houston, Texas that day and I was--ironically enough--all alone in my friend's house there and he had a piano. I picked out this nice-sounding bit and decided it would work for "Alone." There's that story.

JW: Talk about "Great Blue Divide." I have no segue.

RS: "Divide" was the last song. I still call it "Lori's Song" since she wrote lyrics for it. If she would have waited one more day, she wouldn't have had any lyrics on the album. In fact, I had already written lyrics and was about to do the music, but Lori emailed them that day, so it worked out. The lyrics I wrote might appear on Charles Grodin my next Rusty Spell album or something.

JW: Which I would like to schedule an interview for...

RS: Now you suck, Johnny. Anyway, I got the lyrics and really liked them. I didn't know what to do with them, though, at first even though I had this overall musical impression in my head. It was much different from anything I might have written, and I knew it would be an effort to make music around it. So, I pulled out the Casio MT-100 and played around for a few hours and worked out an outline. When I finally went in the studio to make the music, I was, like, hallucinating and stuff. I think it must have been really late at night, and I had been working on the Casio for so long and just really ready to finish this album. I started imagining each instrument as having a different personality and they would talk to me and stuff. It took me a long time to make this song, longer than any other. Usually, the entire process of making a song (lyrics, music, vocal recording, and all the figuring out that goes along with it) takes about two hours. This one took about six or seven.

JW: That's why you like to do everything by yourself, huh?

RS: True, but I'm really glad I got to work with something that wasn't entirely mine. It made me stretch more, and this song is now really different and one of my favorites. If I would have done with this album what I wanted to do, borrow Noby's equipment, write the lyrics real quick, and record everything in like two weeks... then bring in Lori, it would have taken no time. But I had to deal with everyone and it took about three months, a length of time I'm really not used to taking. My tops is two days.

JW: You got mad didn't you, there at the end?

RS: Yeah, I like working fast and by myself.

JW: We're on the last two songs now, "100KF" being the next one.

RS: Yeah, one of my first ideas for the album was to do TMF's "100,000 Fireflies." At first, I was going to just do it normal and sing it myself, but then I realized enough bands had covered this song--Superchunk and everybody--so I made it an instrumental. And I called it "100KF" because I didn't want a song the name of the band; that makes it seem like the song is the most important or something. Also, it sounds like the name of an instrumental, or at least a ski slope. I wrote the musical outline to this song while sitting in my History of the English Language class. That's the class where I usually pay attention to every word because I learn so much: That shows how anxious I was to get the album done by this time.

JW: So, what are you saying in that backward part anyway?

RS: It's a secret. Figure it out.

JW: Oh, wow... like I can't just play it backwards on my own equipment.

RS: Go ahead, but I'm not going to tell anyone.

JW: Last song...

RS: "Suddenly There Is a Tidal Wave." The only true cover. I didn't even like this Merritt song much when I first heard it, thinking it was too boring. Then I read the lyrics along with it one day and had this new respect for it. And thought it would be perfect to end my album with. This was the second song I did music for; I wanted to start with bookends. I thought it would be neat to split the lyrics between me and Lori, so that it told more of a story. And it worked pretty well. But, yeah, the only really real cover. The only thing I changed was "sucked out to sea" to "swept out to sea." The music is closest also: I did it in a creepier key and made it slower and exaggerated this Star Trek whistle so that it sounds like this ghost story from the beach now.

JW: This is actually my favorite song from the album. What's yours?

RS: I don't have one. I said "Divide" was a favorite, but that's only because it's the newest. I'm getting to like them all equally. There's not one that I like less than the others, either.

JW: We're wrapping up here. How would you compare 20th Century to Mailbox?

RS: Um... I wouldn't. This one is the first non-one word title under 'nikcuS Productions; Mailbox is more about me, this one's more about my literature... um, that's about it. They're both about different things and by different "groups" and for different reasons.

JW: Cool. Overall impressions? Closing thoughts?

RS: Sure. I'm so glad it's finally done. I'll probably listen to this one for entertainment more than any others. I think Lori's the coolest, glad she got to work with me.

JW: As long as you're here, what's next for Love and Letters Music?

RS: I thought about doing this low-production cover album, where I get off by myself and do covers of some of my favorites, just very low-budget but hopefully sounding pretty good. More like the way we used to record. I'll just wait till everyone's gone and do it by myself in one day. And then I still want to produce Teynaum Bowen's album. She's in fifth grade and I want her to write lyrics and sing while I make music on the Casio. It should be fun.

JW: Thanks a lot, Rusty. May I watch The Beatles with you?

RS: You bet. I had fun this time.

Addendum: Due to Lori not wanting her vocals or lyrics to be sold, the original 100,000 Fireflies version of this album is now out of print. Is is now newly recorded by The Mnemonic Devices.

Copyright (c) Oct 1996 by The Mnemonic Devices and Johnny Winters